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A group focused on racial equity in Bozeman is urging schools to close for in-person learning, as COVID-19 cases rise and heavily impact Indigenous and Black families.

In a letter written on Oct. 14, the Montana Racial Equity Project highlighted the coronavirus mortality rate experienced by people of color and said public schools should be closed to protect families.

“Close public school classrooms until science shows us that we are successfully managing a united front against COVID-19,” wrote Rae Birdhat Howe in the letter. Howe is the health, wellness and special projects coordinator with the Montana Racial Equity Project.

The rising number of cases and deaths across the state, particularly those among Indigenous communities, sparked the letter, said Judith Heilman, executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project.

“It’s reservation, it’s urban, it’s suburban, it’s rural, and it’s everywhere,” she said of the virus. “Stopping the spread needs to be done by shutting down the schools, not having kids in the schools. We need to do some hard, hard stuff.”

Montana Racial Equity Project “supports protecting communities of color and urges parents to have their children stay home and learn virtually, with their families,” the letter said.

Bob Connors, superintendent of the Bozeman School District, said the data did suggest people of color were more impacted by the coronavirus, and that was a concern. He said the district allows anyone who does not feel safe with in-person learning to opt for 100% remote learning.

“Is that the best answer? No,” he said. “But that is the answer that we have, if they’re concerned about coming to in-person instruction. We definitely understand it’s not a one size fits all but it is an option.”

On its Oct. 12 board meeting, the school district voted to move forward with its approved transition dates to full in-person learning for the three school levels.

The targeted date for prekindergarten to fifth grades is Nov. 2. For middle schools it’s the start of the second trimester, or Nov. 23. For high schools it’s the beginning of the second semester, or Jan. 25.

Connors said the district was beginning the process of meeting with groups like Montana Racial Equity Project, but was slowed by the coronavirus pandemic and reopening the schools. He said he had appointed a deputy superintendent to look at different ways the district could improve its equity work.

“Right now this district’s focus is on moving towards the next phase (of reopening) and we can continue conversations of equality and equity as we move forward but right now it’s how are we going to help everyone in the district,” he said.

Heilman said her organization and the families she’s heard from are confused why the school district has decided to open the school on certain dates that have “nothing to do with the science and the statistics.”

She said opening the school was making it more likely for people to get COVID-19, especially for people of color.

“We wanted to bring more awareness of how we can stop the spread of the virus,” said Howe, who is Apsáalooke (or Crow), of the letter. “We’re losing a lot of Crow historians and it’s been super prevalent in our Indigenous communities.”

The American Pubic Media Research Lab has an ongoing project monitoring the death rates of COVID-19 in people of color for the last six months, with the most recent update on Oct. 15.

While health departments do not always report race and ethnicity, APM Research Lab stated it knows roughly 97% of the cumulative deaths in the United States.

“Our latest update reveals continued wide disparities by race, most dramatically for Black and Indigenous Americans,” it stated on its website.

White Americans have the lowest COVID-19 mortality rate than other groups, with a mortality rate 3.2 times higher for Black and Latino Americans, 3.1 times higher for Indigenous people, 2.4 times higher for Pacific Islanders and 1.2 times higher for Asian Americans, according to APM Research Lab’s data.

Montana has the seventh largest mortality rate difference between Indigenous and white Americans, according to APM Research Lab.

“This is real life for us,” Heilman said of the virus-related deaths.

In Montana, there are 81 Indigenous deaths to COVID-19 per 100,000 compared to 10 deaths of white Americans per 100,000, according to APM Research Lab’s data.

That disparity has been increasing since August, when there were roughly 28 Indigenous people per 100,000 who died from COVID-19 compared to 4 white Americans per 100,000 who died from the virus.

“I don’t know how to express the magnitude of this. We just lost another major Crow historian to COVID,” Howe said. “We communicate through our history and share stories with each other, and the power of that is being threatened.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at or 582-2633.